Tuesday, July 30, 2013

Calvino on the Self

Italo Calvino wrote in one of the last paragraphs of Six Memos for the Next Millenium: "Who are we, who is each one of us if not a combinatoria of experiences, information, books we have read, things we have imagined? Each life is an encyclopedia, a library, an inventory of objects, a series of styles, and everything can be constantly shuffled and reordered in every way conceivable." This is somehow to count as an important part of his apology of "the novel as a vast net" and the objection that the "multiplication of possibilities" in the novel moves it far away "from that unicum which is the self of the writer, his inner sincerity and the discovery of his own truth."

Somehow this rings false to me. He seems to confuse the self with the notes we take of ourselves and other things, or perhaps better, with what we construct out of these notes. We are, however, more than what we pay attention to whether we like it or not. Our body is not just our experience of the body. When it falls apart, we cease to be. Our relations to others put severe constraints on what can be "shuffled and reordered." Only in fiction is "every way conceivable" possibility—and perhaps not even there.

Calvino seems to have had a glimpse of this inconvenience, for he also says that the "answer that stands closest to [his] heart is something else: Think what it would be to have a work conceived from outside the self, a work that would let us escape the limited perspective of the individual ego, not only to enter into selves like our own, but to give speech to that which has no language ..." But this does not just identify the "self" with "work" in a rather simple-minded way but also asks for something that seems impossible to me. "Selves like ourselves" are just as limited in their perspective as we are and the thing in itself, even if it were to exist cannot be given speech.

We are not just "combinatoria of experiences, information, books we have read, things we have imagined ... an encyclopedia, a library, an inventory of objects" and we are not men or women "without qualities"—no matter how much we like to imagine ourselves to be such.

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